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Crafting architecture by Toby Lewis

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Commended

Anyone lived in a pretty how town’ EE Cummings [1]

I am sitting at the top of Market Street in Newport in south-west Wales, where it meets Church Street and Castle Street, but there are many similar places I could be. The street is a harmonious collection of individual two-storey houses terraced together. The street is wider than the houses are tall and so, though small in scale, it feels generous. I am sitting in a space set aside at one corner, raised slightly and surrounded by plants, with the smell of lavender and the hum of bees. From the wooden bench where I sit, there is a view down the street of the hills across the bay in the distance. Unusually the street is closed for a market, so the foreground sound now is a quiet burble of voices and not the drone of traffic.

In many ways, for all design, this is the issue: what is in the foreground and what is in the background? What should claim our attention? Peter Zumthor has written: ‘Architecture has its own realm. It has a special physical relationship with life. I do not think of it primarily as either a message or a symbol, but as an envelope and background for life which goes on in and around it, a sensitive container for the rhythm of footsteps on the floor, for the concentration of work, for the silence of sleep.’ [2] Much good architecture does this. It is quiet, calm and collected. It deals with subtleties such as tone, texture, sense of space, light as, for example, ‘the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light’  [3] as Le Corbusier put it.

The houses here are mostly built of rubble stone. Some have slate mixed in to tie the wall together; some have quoin blocks of a harder coarser stone. Without really thinking about it, we feel the care that has been taken to make the wall; to order the stones and to render it plumb and square. It is a commonplace of craftsmanship that to make a straight line takes more skill but our sense of value of the straight line has changed with the coming of the industrial revolution and mechanised production. For machine production the straight line is a default condition and so of less value. We cannot so easily read the maker’s hand or eye in the industrial product or the machine-produced building.

Similarly there has been a change in the ease with which brightly coloured things can be made. Colour is no longer as precious as it would have been in the Middle Ages or even the Renaissance. The bright and shiny is often now the ephemeral, such as packaging and posters; attention grabbing and short lived. As a result we see less value in bright colour and begin to value subtlety and imperfection, texture and tone. The bench I am sitting on is a beautiful mottled grey, of weathered silver wood and pale grey lichens, which reminds me of Louis Kahn’s wish for the concrete of the Kimbell museum in Texas to ‘be like the wings of a moth’.[4] Our appreciation is particularly for those materials that can age gracefully, unlike paint. We are with Gottfried Semper and, later, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Frank Lloyd Wright, who have all said ‘let brick appear as brick, wood as wood, iron as iron’  5; where nature and craft give the character to the material.

The Japanese concept of wabi‑sabi is relevant here, valuing the subtly imperfect and the ephemeral; the hand-thrown, salt-glazed pot and the fleeting cherry blossom. These two aspects of wabi-sabi take us back to the recipe for the foreground and background we began with; where people and their activity are an ephemeral and changeable element that is allowed to claim our attention or ‘life as foreground’. Holly Whyte, in his celebrated enquiry into The Social Life of Small Urban Places [6], concluded that the thing that most drew people to any place was watching other people. For the background, the architecture, subtleties and imperfections, texture, tone and material are relevant. The Benedictine monk Dom Hans van der Laan [7] felt that in a simple and unornamented architecture there was a connection to something deeper, timeless and yet meaningful. Buildings don’t need to shout.

Quiet please. 

1. EE Cummings, Anyone lived in a pretty how town from Complete Poems: 1904-1962
2. Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture, 1999
3. Le Corbusier, Vers Une Architecture, 1923
4. Louis Kahn, quoted in Michael Cadwell, Strange Details, 2007
5a. Gottfried Semper, quoted in Hanno-Walter Kruft, A History of Architectural Theory, 1985, p 311
5b. Viollet-le-Duc, Entretiens sur L’Architecture, ibid, p 285
5c. Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography, quoted in NK Smith, Frank Lloyd Wright: A Study in Architectural Content, 1966
6. William H Whyte (aka Holly Whyte) The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, 1980
7. Dom Hans van der Laan Architectonic Space, Leiden: Brill, 1983

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Readers' comments (1)

  • That's a lovely, timeless essay, Toby. Thank you.

    (PS it might be even quieter if the e e cummings hadn't started with a Capital letter)

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